When will we ever escape the rut of outdated pedagogy?

The UK minister’s demand that universities stick to face-to-face lectures is a step backwards for education, says Wendy Garnham

January 12, 2022
A car wheel stuck in a rut
Source: iStock

Despite the tidal wave of omicron cases threatening to overwhelm the UK’s health system, education secretary Nadim Zahawi has reiterated that universities must continue with face-to-face teaching, including lectures. If they revert to online provision, students can complain to the Office for Students about not getting value for money, he told The Sunday Times.

The frustration felt by many in the academic community over such a claim is overwhelming. The view of online lectures as a second-rate alternative is, in my opinion and experience, an outdated and inaccurate view of how effective learning can take place.

In a large lecture theatre of between 200 and 500 students, I can pretty much guarantee that not a single student will raise their hand to ask a question. The lecturer is therefore disseminating information to a passive audience. Even with interactive tools that allow polling, if a student’s inquisitive nature is sparked and they have a question, it is very difficult for them to rise above the anxiety associated with speaking up in front of such a large audience, particularly at the beginning of their course. It is commonly acknowledged that anxiety is an increasing problem among university students, exacerbated by the experience of the pandemic. Yet the government urges us to revert to an antiquated method of teaching that only increases it.

This is not the only issue with traditional, large-scale lectures. A single lecturer can no longer embrace all the current thinking on a subject, due to the ever-evolving nature of knowledge development. When I was young, we had to resort to the trusted encyclopedia, but now students can read academic articles online and find out the core information for themselves. In such an era, the idea of the lecture as a conversation and exploration of content, rather than as a dissemination of information, is surely a more advanced, efficient and effective method of engaging with content. The role of the academic is to take that knowledge and encourage and facilitate students to question, explore and add depth to their understanding – not just to repeat what they have already found (or could find) for themselves.

Contrast the large, face-to-face lecture with the experience of online lectures. Most online platforms offer students the chance to contribute to an ongoing chat. My own students have been incredibly active in raising questions, adding contributions to debates and sharing their thoughts about the topics covered. This has often led to both me and them following up the lecture by exploring some of the issues raised, which in turn leads to deeper learning, both for them and for myself as an academic. It has led to research projects in which they can actively play a role, and it has fed into discussions with wider networks. If students are happy to share their thoughts and questions with the lecturer, surely this leads to more interest and investment in their subject in the longer term?

The over-reliance on outdated methods of learning reflects what I believe is a key problem with education more generally in the UK. My own children report that their learning of subjects at GCSE and A level is now much more about how to structure an exam answer than it is about nurturing an interest to pursue that subject further. The result is that they begin to see learning as training in how to pass exams, with very little relevance for their life post-school or college. Do we really want the same to be said of university education? I hope not.

This is not to say that face-to-face learning for teaching small groups, such as seminars and tutorials, is not valuable – it certainly is. In smaller groups, students feel more able to contribute and actively engage in activities that allow them to develop their knowledge further. But where large lectures are concerned, it feels like government ministers are completely out of touch with the advances that have been made in pedagogy. It is a significant backward step for higher education to be forced to revert to them.

Wendy Garnham is reader in psychology at the University of Sussex, a National Teaching Fellow and co-founder of the Active Learning Network.

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Reader's comments (10)

Lectures are essential part of higher education. They are a showpiece, yes, and a lot of work for scholars, but good ones really stand out for students- even if there are lots of them in the hall. Online sessions have a much weaker impact. I think they are inferior by a long way in my recent experience, and colleagues and students regard them as an emergency, temporary, or fill in measure. Convenient yes, but they do not build a scholarly community.
Agreed. A large part of the university experience is being present and interacting in person.
I don't disagree as mentioned in the article. However, I question the value of just having 200-500 students sitting passively in a lecture room as a means of effective learning. In person teaching can work brilliantly for seminars and tutorials, I just don't think the same can be said of traditional face to face large lectures.
I don't disagree that lectures are an essential part of the story and hope I have made this clear in my opinion but if we honestly think that we can still pay the role of expert in disseminating information without the input of students' lively interaction, then I question what purpose traditional large scale lecture serve. If staff consider online, live lectures to be a fill in measure, then clearly they are unlikely to invest the time and effort needed to make them interactive and effective tools. It is commonly known that students will often say they like to just sit and listen to lecturers disseminating information but their learning is less effective unless they are actively involved and in my experience, giving students the opportunity to interact, ask questions and discuss in a non-threatening and non-anxeity provoking manner can help to build strong working relationships with them as developing academics in their own right.
Agree with Wendy. But it is important to distinguish between real time online teaching which is inferred here and the recorded lecture which is fine for some purposes such as rewatching and personal learning patterns, but students regularly report to me how frustrating it is to have so much taped teaching with no interaction, they feel short changed, and worse the reheated re-run of last year’s with all kinds of outdated references. One politics student told me only yesterday that it was so obvious - referring to President Trump not President Biden. Size matters of course. Teaching in a business school I love the cut and thrust of face to face as do my participants but I have the luxury of small groups, no more than 35, often 15-20 - really, really miss teaching like this, but the reality is much of this is gone forever.
I agree 100% Mark. I am very much talking about the value of live online lectures not pre-recorded lectures. Time management is an issue for many students and having a lot of pre-recorded content to wade through does not help. But having the opportunity to engage with a lecturer live, in a synchronous online lecture, using the chat function is invaluable and has led to a much more rewarding experience for both my students and myself alike.
I completely agree with the article and the comments about synchronous online lectures. Chat facilities give many students the confidence to ask questions which they would not do in a traditional environment and the online lectures can generate transcripts to help students with accessibility issues . Similarly, there are many face to face delivered lectures which are utterly dreadful, a dreary dictation of notes with little interaction or engagement. Ultimately the lectures are as good as the skills of the academics delivering them and the use they make of different formats. To suggest students are being short changed by online delivery is a big mistake and shows how little the Office for Students actually understands what happens in practice.
My son in his first year at university has had no face to face lectures- yet. He sits in his room staring at a screen and watches a prerecorded lecture often from last year’s records. Ironically, though he is not alone in this experience, He Is VERY alone in the actual physical process of ‘attending’ these prerecorded and re run lectures from last year. There is no collective course identity , no physical connection with other students that he would have got from attending lectures. His world is ‘virtual’ He doesn’t have to get up , washed and dressed to attend . There’s no sense of occasion, no getting together with others after for coffee etc. Psychologically it’s detrimental . He has some tutorials in person with 2 or 3 other students and a lecturer in a small room and all wearing masks understandably yet alienating which is something we all have to bare with until things get under control. All in all - he might as well be at home learning with the Open University which has been a Godsend to those historically unable to attend university in person. At 18 he is isolated, and downcast and in my opinion the lecturers who could be teaching, interacting, lecturing and physically present (as his younger brothers school teachers are ) have abandoned him and his cohort. I like that tutorials are still happening but lectures have their place because even if ‘anxiety’ prevents a student from asking a question they are still getting so much more - and potentially being energised by a vibrant speaker or someone hopefully inspiring. That leaves an impression and a valuable one. The difference between a tutorial and a lecture is like a dinner for 6 and a party for 50 people. I prefer dinner at my age but the young need and like parties - social cohesion is important . What is important here is to give the young undergraduate an academic reason to physically attend university . At the moment there is none, and that’s costing a lot of money. University academics might be shooting themselves in the foot by reacting furiously to government directives to restart face to face teaching lectures. The damage this is doing to student morale will filter down to potential future students and their parents who are listening to the experiences of their siblings or children with disappointment and sadness.
Yes online tools can enhance lectures, but no, online learning cannot substitute for the university experience - unless you want higher education to become one big MOOC. People have been predicting the death of the lecture for much the same reasons ever since the OU began in 1969, and yet there have never been more students willing to pay more money to come to university in person. And yes, that's the screen-fed generation. Listen to the students who are demanding their money back.
Is the loss of traditional campus life more of a concern for students rather than the methods of teaching ? I do belive that students have a completely misplaced sense of entitlement to demand money back when Universities have done their best to keep staff and students safe in a time of global pandemic and enabled tuition to continue and students to graduate. I bet the majority of them aren't even aware that their tuition fees don't even cover costs for some courses. Life isn't perfect , you can't demand a refund for everything that doesn't go your way.